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The ageless pursuit of health

In previous posts we explored general public health conditions in the Roman Empire and the province of Palestine. While there were obvious concerns and attempts to provide sanitation and control disease, the fact is, life often hung precariously in the balance.

Life is short

Lynn H. Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009) provides grim data: “Using statistics from modern, preindustrial communities to estimate demographics in the ancient world, we find that the average life expectancy was twenty-five years” (119). Dr. Paul Kitchen is a little more optimistic: “If a person lived beyond the dangerous years of childhood, he or she might expect to live until the fifties….However we know that few people lived beyond the biblical threescore years and ten.”[1]

Sickness was a constant threat, and its first line of treatment is strangely familiar—the help of extended family, and home remedies (many of which were probably passed down through generations). That failing, a physician was sought, depending on the family’s ability to pay.

General practitioners

According to Dr. Kitchen, physicians of the day wore several different hats, acting as pharmacist, physiologist, doctor/physician, and surgeon. They traveled (perhaps on a circuit), made home visits, and performed surgery on location when necessary.

Alfred Edersheim notes that “among the regular Temple officials there was a medical man, whose duty it was to attend to the priesthood who, from ministering barefoot, must have been specially liable to certain diseases. The Rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician, who was also to be qualified to practice surgery, or else a physician and a surgeon.” [2]

Regarding treatment options, Edersheim continues: “Cold-water compresses, the external and internal use of oil and of wine, baths (medicated and other), and a certain diet, were carefully indicated in special diseases” (page 152). Page twenty-two of Dr. Kitchen’s article contains a table of suggested remedies available to 1st century doctors in Palestine.[3]Here are a few that might have been of particular interest to mothers and families:

Feverfew

Feverfew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Headache: chamomile, aloe, lemon balm, pepper
  • Wound care: balsam, olive oil, wine, honey, balm, myrrh or frankincense, hyssop, juniper, fig sap, yarrow oil
  • Fever: wormwood
  • Morning sickness: cumin, feverfew
  • To improve lactation: castor oil, fenugreek
  • Anxiety: fennel
  • Sore feet: wormwood
  • Worms: laurel, wormwood

Wikipedia adds these for more general use: [4]

  • Elecampane: used to help with digestion
  • Garlic: beneficial for health, particularly of the heart
  • Fenugreek: used in the treatment of pneumonia
  • Silphium: used for a wide variety of ailments and conditions—especially for birth control [5]
  • Willow: used as an antiseptic

Some common treatments mentioned in the Bible

Holman’s Bible Dictionary notes:

“The illness of Hezekiah was treated by applying a poultice of figs (Isaiah 38:21). Hezekiah almost certainly had some type of acute bacterial infection of the skin. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, these dangerous infections could cause death. Although it is unlikely that the figs had any medicinal value, they were probably applied in the form of a hot compress. Heat is an effective treatment for infections of the skin. …Medical care in biblical times frequently employed the use of different kinds of salves and ointments. Olive oil was used widely, either alone or as an ingredient in ointments. The use of oil for the treatment of wounds is mentioned in Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34. Oil also became a symbol of medicine, and its use was coupled with prayer for the ill (Mark 6:13; James 5:14).”[6]

Did you say cabbage?

Here is an interesting bit of trivia: “Cabbage has been grown in the West since approximately 400 BC. It is a plant that has high therapeutic qualities. Since ancient Greek times cabbage was used as a remedy for the digestive system, skin problems, fever, and a fortifier for aching joints. The Romans used to eat raw cabbage when indulging in too much alcohol, to avoid getting drunk. Cabbage was always on hand for treating most family problems….”[7]

One last question

One might ask if there were hospitals during this period of time. The answer is yes, but not like the familiar high-rises we visit today. The Romans built such facilities to care for their wounded soldiers. Separate buildings like barracks were constructed within the camp, mainly to keep the smell and screaming of the injured from demoralizing their sleeping comrades. Some of the larger camps featured operating rooms, baths, kitchens, latrines with running water, and a dispensary.[8] There is evidence that one such hospital existed in Jerusalem.

It took some time before hospital facilities became available to the general population. Again, from Dr. Kitchen: “Before the Christian era there is no evidence of hospitals or sanatoria for the sick in villages or in Roman cities in that day. Most medicine was practiced by the patient’s bedside. It was a personal or family affair and there is not sense of public duty towards the sick.”

In summary

The Gospel accounts record wonderful instances of crowds of the sick and afflicted thronging Jesus to experience His miraculous healing. Sadly, though, throughout much of the Roman Empire, even in Palestine, most had no access to such a blessing. Instead, they relied on Roman administrators to introduce engineering innovations designed to improve public health, and to slow the spread of disease.

Ordinary families depended on their own resources to deal with all-too-familiar sicknesses, and death. Wives, mothers, and female family members were the principal caregivers in such cases.

It is hoped these brief excursions into life in 1st century Palestine have given readers a new appreciation of its women, and the daunting and often heart-breaking challenges they faced.


[2] Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Alfred Edersheim (1994), Updated edition, Hendrickson Pub., page 151

[3] See Note 1.

[5] Lynn H. Cohick mentions a discussion by the Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus, addressing  the topic of contraceptive measures. These reportedly included the use of olive oil, cedar resin, or honey on the opening of the uterus, or plugging the opening with fine wool (page 150).

[8] Kitchen, page 6, “Did hospitals exist in towns in the provinces of the Empire?”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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